‘Congratulations! We are delighted to let you know that we have decided to make you an offer to study H801 Chemical Engineering (MEng 4YFT) in 14/15 at Imperial College London…’
I squeal in delight upon reading this email. I rush to my parents to tell them of the good news. After many hugs and kisses, it dawns on me that I am going to Imperial College (if I met my entry requirements), one of the best academic institutions in the world. Little did I know what this academic year had in store for me.
One of the most important aspects of university life is the accommodation; this is the first time many students stay away from home for a long period of time. It is a beginning to independence, living under your own roof under your own rules (well the hall’s or landlord’s anyway). I consider myself very fortunate to have lived in an en suite room all to myself, a mere five minute walk from the campus. However, I am not sure the same can be said for next year’s Freshers what with Weeks hall (located at a five minute walk from the South Kensington Campus usually oversubscribed due to its relatively cheap accommodation) and the halls at Evelyn gardens (fifteen minute walk) closing. Instead students might find themselves living in a new hall, set to open its doors for the first time to next year’s Freshers, in Acton (a 40 minute long commute using public transportation).
The closure of Weeks Hall was a very controversial move, especially since the residents were not even notified until the decision has been made (you can read more about it here: http://felixonline.co.uk/news/5275/why-did-no-one-tell-us-college-wants-to-shut-our-halls/). Another article in Felix (the student run newspaper of Imperial College) compares this to the closure of Garden Halls a couple of years ago: ‘Parallels between the closure of Weeks and the closure of Garden Halls were also drawn, with one student explaining that it was only recently that they began to remove student furniture from Garden Hall, which has sat vacant for nearly two years since its closure in 2013.’ (http://felixonline.co.uk/news/5390/union-council-reverses-decision-on-campaign-against-closure-of-weeks-hall/).
A little history behind Garden Hall; it used to face Prince’s Gardens and was also about a five minute walk from the South Kensington campus. It was an oversubscribed hall due to its relatively inexpensive rates and its excellent location. Despite a petition being made which had more than 1400 supporters (https://www.change.org/p/imperial-college-save-garden-hall), the decision was made to close the hall. After two years of its closure, the building which was known as Garden Hall has yet to serve a purpose.
As to what will be done to Weeks Hall, there are plans to use the building as a childcare centre for academics in hopes to encourage more female academics to stay at Imperial for a longer duration of their careers (http://felixonline.co.uk/news/5240/union-council-vote-to-support-closure-of-weeks-hall-in-princes-gardens/ ). Although that might sound like a good idea, there is no guarantee that this indeed will occur. And I am sorry, branding Weeks Hall as an ‘inefficient use of space’ sounds a little hypocritical to me, especially since it has been two years and Garden Hall still remains empty. Quite astounding considering the fact that it is located in one of the most expensive areas in London.
The new hall at Acton-Woodward Hall-will house about 700 students. It will offer the best facilities out of all the Imperial halls with an on-site gym, restaurant and bar in an attempt to create a community feeling as it is so far away from the main campus. Its location and cost has drawn a lot of criticism with many believing that the halls nearer to the main campus could have been refurbished encouraging students, especially first years, to participate in clubs and societies. So much so that a new hashtag (#AgainstActon) garnered great support from the student body (http://felixonline.co.uk/news/3347/anger-over-new-halls/). Yet again, the college has turned a deaf ear to the student body.
Another incident received considerable attention from the media and who can blame them? When an academic, who contributed greatly to understanding cellular mechanisms relating to the development of cancer, commits suicide after sending an email to his colleagues blaming the pressure he was put under by a world class institute, it is bound to make a few headlines.
Before his death, Professor Stefan Grimm sent a damning email to his fellow academics at Imperial. It was perhaps this email that resulted in the great media attention. In it, Professor Grimm relates how he was treated once it has become clear that he had not met his target income (you can read the email here: http://www.dcscience.net/2014/12/01/publish-and-perish-at-imperial-college-london-the-death-of-stefan-grimm/ ).
His suicide drew attention to the clear trend that academic institutes have become more business orientated than ever. In an article in The Times Higher Education it was revealed that grant income targets are set in one in six UK universities (https://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/news/grant-income-targets-set-one-six-universities-poll-suggests) with Imperial College being one of them. An article in Felix has also reported this, saying: ‘at Imperial, academics are expected to “cover the costs of their employment” with the income from their research and teaching work.’ (http://felixonline.co.uk/news/5609/imperial-among-one-in-six-universities-to-set-grant-income-targets-for-individuals/).
It appears that not only students are put under pressure by the college with the immense workload; its academic staff are not in a more enviable position. While I am certain that every academic institute has its shortcomings, I have yet to hear of any of its academic staff dying in such circumstances.
You may ask yourself why I am airing Imperial’s dirty laundry (though it can be hardly called that since all I’ve included in this blog post is easily accessible). It is a question I still haven’t found an answer to. Perhaps I wanted to draw your attention to a side you may have not been aware of thanks to Imperial’s clever PR work. Or perhaps it may serve as a little warning to future Freshers so they will not be as shocked as I was when I learnt about these facts.
I cannot guarantee what will happen to this blog post once I publish it, nor how the college will respond. All I know is, while this is my first year and I am still a newbie, I can only hope that these circumstances are extraordinary and not regular occurrences.
UPDATE: I haven’t received anything from the college in response to this blog post. Say what you might about Imperial but at least they let their students voice their opinions freely.